An Astonishing Diamond

{to read this post just click on the title above; there is a glitch in the text below that makes it unreadable}

There comes a point when something begins to feel a bit different, a tipping point I suppose. I’ve recently been in touch with the Slow Education website and in the emailed response W.E.Deming was mentioned, the same W.E.Deming that Maurice Holt quotes in his recent article about the sorry state of US/UK education: to try to improve process by studying outcomes he says “…is like driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.”

W.E. Deming’s book ‘The New Economics’ (2000) is a guide to business management. In it he recognises that competition within an institution, be that a business or a school, can be destructive. Cooperation is promoted as the positive alternative. One way to do away with unhelpful competition is to abolish ‘performance reviews’ at work and grades/levels at school. Before you ask: no, I haven’t read the book! But that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that ‘Performance Related Pay’ is now a reality for England’s school teachers. This reveals to the world that we have an education system overseen by non-educationalists who don’t value a collegiate workplace for teachers; want to encourage competition within schools (as well as between!); do not know their own history (‘Payment-by-Results’ was abandoned in England over one hundred years ago because it leads to teaching to the test, a narrow curriculum and fiddling the data) and are inspired by – Deming would argue outdated – business practices rather than anything like an educational philosophy.

I haven’t read The New Economics but I have read two books recently both entitled ‘Together’, one by Henry Hemming (2011) and the other by Richard Sennett (2012). Both these books are about cooperation. Like W.E.Deming these authors take issue with the distorted view of Darwin that claims his theories of evolution are proof of the supremacy of the anti-collective, individualistic life. Hemming’s book suggests that associations and clubs have seen a massive resurgence in the last ten or twenty years; in studying this phenomenon he not only asks why but also draws attention to the precise nature of any association or club: in describing such a community he states “…it is not an identity that you can foist on an unsuspecting set of individuals.” (p.226) If this is true how can teachers in England really recognise themselves as a community of professionals? After all, their identity is very much ‘foisted’ upon them by a damaging treadmill of short-termist political leaders. Ordinary Voices, an organisation promoting new approaches to education management, describes the short-term vision of these politicians as “…sometimes creating instability and uncertainty in the system.” This is putting it very politely indeed!

As Richard Sennett says in his book “When reform is conducted top-down, what goes missing is equality.” (p.50) Ordinary Voices turns this quote on its head because it aims to build “…a broader consensus for what kind of service we want to provide…” The bottom of their homepage states simply “More voices of ordinary people want to be heard in the education debate.” This isn’t the promotion of a particular type of educational uniformity by a combination of global business interests, Think Tanks and politicians (for evidence of this see nearly every other post in this blog). This isn’t the promotion of any particular educational agenda, it is simply a call for a more participatory democracy. Sennett describes how the internet has enabled people to share their interests and come together with greater ease and in greater numbers than ever before. An organisation like Ordinary Voices is a community in the modern sense of the word, not bound by place and faith but by common interest or cause. Robert Nisbet (1913 – 96) describes any association like this as “…the greatest single barrier to the conversion of democracy from its liberal form to its totalitarian form.”

“A club is a community engaged in the task of educating itself.” J.M.Brew ‘Informal Education: Adventures and Reflections’ 1946

When does the tipping point occur? Is it when the community grows to a certain size? Is it when the task of educating is obsolete because the truths are self-evident? Is it when the contents of that education crystallise into something like an astonishing diamond that can no longer be ignored?

2 comments on “An Astonishing Diamond

  1. The community that you suggest may be emerging would be distinct from a union, although a professional union is a good starting-point for looking at the value of such a community (self-organisation; collective articulation of interests; brainstorming solutions to common problems; etc.)
    My instinct would be to say that meaningful communities work best at a local level, as in a face-to-face ‘club’ rather than a broad, national entity. The NUT provides practical functions for teachers, but can it provide the more discursive, non-professional aspects that actually make a group ‘communal’? Similarly, is ‘Ordinary Voices’ more than just an online forum and lobby group?
    If not, what civil society groups (clubs, local orgs, etc.) exist to provide a discursive, face-to-face community for teachers? E.g. how effective are PTAs? Be good to hear your thoughts on this.
    Finally, a pedantic point re. the quote from Nisbet re. civil society and totalitarianism: civil society is a neutral term and can equally refer to liberal and illiberal groups, the latter potentially supporting illiberal regimes and outcomes – e.g. the veterans’ groups in 1920s Germany who morphed into the brown-shirts and the Rwandan youth groups (‘interahamwe’) who went from Boy Scout type activities in the ’80s to conducting genocide in 1994.
    Closer to home, arguably much of the support for Gove-ite reforms comes from civil society in various forms. The point is, this is an ideological struggle as much as a structural issue.

    • The article was written in a spirit of optimism inspired by all those schools that refuse to let the exam agenda squeeze all the fun out of learning. As we drift away from local authority control of schools we see that there can be a strength in partnerships of local schools; it is the ownership of the collective activity that is its strength, this is your ‘meaningful communities working best at a local level’.
      Ordinary Voices is an example, Slow Education is another, of unaffiliated individuals and small groups pushing for recognition of the value of educating the whole child. That is, letting good exam grades be the happy outcome of a thriving school, not an end in itself. Independent schools will always tell you that this is what they are doing, “educating the whole child”. The NUT at a national level also values this and challenges the narrow, exam-led tedium that characterises too much of our education system. The NUT’s recently published ‘Manifesto for our Children’s Education’ states “we need a wider vision of learning and achievement”…”we need more time for teaching, not more tests” and points out that 90% of parents surveyed “thought a love of learning and gaining skills for adult life matter as much as attaining high grades”. Sadly the NUT lacks any real clout and, once again, the voice of real experienced teachers will be ignored. The community that I am writing about already exists! It’s the great majority of thoughtful teachers up and down the country.
      Regarding the Nisbet quote: Yes it’s true that, as you illustrate, any group within civil society can be deeply antagonistic to that society if it wants to be. This unfortunate truth should not be a distraction from the fact that an immense diversity of small scale associations/organisations within society is a good thing, it is a strength. To point out that a society/group etc might be destructive is only the same as pointing out that some people can be too. It suggests you’ve missed the point: I put this quote in because it reflects my understanding of what a healthy democratic system looks like: small local democratic organisations/associations within a broader regional democratic system that is in turn overseen by a national democratic system. The rapid transformation of the English education system is often represented in just this way as a chance for local communities to have a say and be more directly involved in the Big Society. The reality is the opposite: it is a centralisation of power as is made clear in an article (2012) on the LSE’s website where the author states “Besides further privatisation, the ultimate goal of such reform is to enhance the government’s power and undermine one of the key dimensions of a democracy, namely vertical power sharing between central and local governments. In centralising education funding, Britain is moving away from reforms made elsewhere in Europe where decentralisation is the norm, and clearly it also departs from other liberal democratic approaches.” ( Just to repeat the critical phrase: “…undermine one of the key dimensions of a democracy…” The point is that these reforms are inconsistent with localism and accountable government. For all the talk of ‘free’ schools and the benefits of ‘autonomy’ for academies these initiatives have led to a more centralised system. As the NUT also points out in its manifesto “”They are being run by unelected, unaccountable individuals or organisations” They are not answerable to local councils or communities.* It’s hard not to see that as a direct attack on democracy. Instead of improving the system we choose to sell it off. The American education system is very much the model here (see Diane Ravitch’s ‘Reign of Error’).
      Much of the support for Gove-ite reforms does appear to come from civil society if you read the newspapers. Studying the Global Education Reform Movement though reveals a top-down system of control that pushes the interests of the global business community (for better or for worse) and ignores communities and teachers. I would certainly argue that this is an ideological struggle.

      * An example here from a friend of mine: his children go to a school that converted to academy status. A construction firm made the school an offer of an entirely new site to be built from scratch – at no more than cost price for the school, a very attractive offer – up the road where the construction firm are currently working on a large housing development. Of course the school would represent something very attractive to all potential new-home buyers. My friend was a bit disturbed by this, not least because it would mean his children would be too far from the new site and they’d have to switch schools. He wanted to raise the issue because he is a parent. Of course, with the school’s new academy status his voice was completely irrelevant! There is no local accountability. That’s an attack on civil society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s